Alex Massie

Bill McLaren 1923-2010

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He'd been ill for some time, so the news that Bill McLaren, the "Voice of Rugby" has died is sad but neither surprising nor shocking. For nearly half a century, from his debut in 1953 until 2002, his voice dominated the game. No other rugby commentator came close. Nor, in this multi-channel age, will any again.

The voice - a mild Hawick burr - was only part of what made McLaren so distinctive. McLaren's commentary combined great colour with precision. He gave viewers a sense of the drama of the game and relished the physical confrontation that lies at the heart of rugby and without which it is, if not nothing, then a much-reduced game. He was a trusted, kindly guide who taught many of us much of what we know about the game. Above all, there was a rare warmth about Bill's commentary.

This generosity of spirit meant that he almost never second-guessed either players or coaches. He assumed that they were doing their best and should only be judged - if judged at all - in that context. Above all, he communicated his own enthusiasm for the game and what makes it special.

In truth, I suspect that he never quite embraced the professional game. That is, while recognising that professionalism had become inevitable he was more comfortable with the amateur ethos. For Bill, rugby was inextricably linked to a sense of place and belonging - whether that be playing for your school, your town or your country. The idea of the rugby player as "hired gun" was something different and, I think, a development that he rather regretted.

If you were to ask him where he was happiest, he might say watching the Hawick primary school pupils he coached or at Mansfield Park or the Greenyards on Melrose Sevens Day. He was a Borderer through and through and repeatedly declined BBC offers to move south to present and commentate on other sports. If he didn't quite embrace the local adage that "A day oot of Hawick is a day wasted", Hawick was always home.

His commentary was strictly, amazingly impartial. Again, that generosity of spirit: if England cut the Scots to ribbons you'd be hard-pressed to discern any disappointment in his voice. Good rugby was good rugby regardless of the colour of the jerseys. Unlike many of his successors you couldn't tell from his commentary which side Bill secretly wanted to win a game. This too was exceptionally rare.

But that too was because the game of rugby was his priority. He wanted rugby to be, as the cliche has it, "the winner". And when Bill was commentating on a match you often, maybe even always, had the comforting sense that rugby was the ultimate winner. A consummate professional in terms of his preparation for commentary, Bill retained the amateur's delight and sense of wonder. This too enriched his commentary and made him the best.

And In the press box he was a kindly presence, always ready with a word of encouragement or advice to pass on to young rugby writers.

So, a sad day and there'll be no dancing in the streets of Hawick tonight, but, my, what memories!

Here are some more clips.

Scotland vs Wales, 1971:

 

Scotland vs France, 1984:

Wales vs England, 1999:

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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